- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
[Thomas Ouellet Fredericks & Danny Perreault / Tvestroy / 2007]
Our experience of a VJ's performance is rarely evaluated as a distinct entity, nor is it influenced by what we see the artist do physically. It is usually measured by its contribution to an overall aesthetic experience, be it in the club, an art party or at music festival. This totality of sensory performance is frequently associated with the neurological phenomena of synaesthesia–the enhanced stimulation of one sense (aural for instance) by the experience of another. Behind this idea is the notion of seeing music as colors, ideas as having flavours, and words with personality. Artists have long explored this, with notable contributions being made by the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin whose Mysterium and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire were designed to produce a synaethesiastic experience. Working almost a hundred years ago it was difficult to create and engage an audience in this manner, whereas today it is relatively easy to enhance our auditory experience with visuals in an attempt to see the music. As a result of this technological capacity the VJ has emerged as a frequently unseen actor who augments the sonics elements of the contemporary music experience.
In the vast majority of venues where VJs perform the sonic instrument driving the synaesthetic experience is the laptop. Since the laptop's initial entry as an instrument for music, artists have been reckoning with the paradox of the machine's limitless potential for sound processing versus its limiting role as a physical instrument itself. More and more artists have been breaking away from the keyboard and mouse to develop new instrument interfaces, from the very unique works of artists like Australian Justice Yeldham and his plate of glass, to software pioneers like Miller Pucket who have returned to the traditional interface of the guitar. I see the efforts of these computer based musicians being motivated by two essential and very intertwined elements. The first is the desire to modify the interface of the computer to enhance its creative potential. The second is to increase the synaesthetic value of the live performance; which is to say create a context where the audio artist themselves becomes something to look at again.
For the VJ, the attention of the audience is rarely focused on their physical presence and/or their relation to the instrument. The screen becomes a distraction away from the performer, and even the seasoned media arts audience have difficulty discerning what is live and what is pre-recorded. If this is true, that an audience will not be able to tell what is 'really live', does it matter? And if it does matter how does a VJ cultivate this performative side of his or her work?
The VJ Process
The VJ evolved alongside a more general movement working to redefine the traditional experience of musical performance. The role of the VJ is often to extend or magnify the gestures of the central sonic performer, augmenting the spectacle to an even grander level. As the live video performance reaches new heights we see three distinct areas of the process.
The first is the preparation of materials. In musical terms this would be the compositional and rehearsal elements, and in film and video terms this would be the production and post-production process. For each VJ the preparation process is a unique mix of each of these elements. The second is the technical installation. The VJ is often responsible for the presentation design and installation as well as the content. This can mean acquiring and setting up a projector and screen or a more in depth and specific design. The third is the performative element, not only the sense of self that the performer brings to the audience experience, but the fluid creative state unlocked during the unique process of expressing oneself to a specific group of people at a specific point in time.
Taking Center Stage
Of these three elements I find the first is perhaps the most easily understood by the audience. The creation of content grows directly from the history of time-based media including music, cinema, television and everything in between, and every audience member carries at least some small part of this history with them to the experience. Because of the accessibility of measures by which to assess or position the content of a performance, it is the content which is often used to evaluate or discuss a VJ's work.
The technical aspects of the creative process is a very multi-faceted element of the creation process and it has, in many ways only begun to be explored. On the practical side the average VJ rarely expects to simply arrive at the venue and plug their performance gear into the existing visual system.The extra effort of set-up and take down can seem burdensome, but it is also an integral part of the creative process connecting the artist to all the aspects of their technological expression. Thomas Ouellet Fredericks and Danny Perreault's Tvestroy (2007) is an excellent example of a performance where the installation of the work itself almost supersedes its performative elements. The audience sees only three large projections and five CRT monitors from which only pure signal, both audio and video, emerges. This collection of individually-controlled monitors becomes the spectacular instrument which the audience experiences. The technical abilities of the artists to realize its installation are as integral to the performance as the actions of the artists during its execution. Even the most seasoned media arts audience would have difficulty discerning whether the performance itself was live or pre-recorded, but this is perhaps irrelevant as the totality of the synaesthetic experience extends beyond the aural and visual into the physical force of pure sound on the body, awe-inspiring in its elegant and virtuous technical execution.
If we move to the opposite end of the spectrum from Tvestroy to look at artists like AddictiveTV, Eclectic Method or Roonie G we see a very successful execution, and public appreciation, of performance abilities specifically. Part of this success relies on the more common understanding of the source material (popular cinema and music videos) and the tools for performance (largely the turntable). The style of these artists is a direct evolution of the club DJ, fuelled specifically by development of the Pioneer DVJ deck. The DVJ opens the way for the skills of the turntablist to bring audio-video collage to a new performance level, but although the DVJ is an exciting unit its prohibitive cost makes it very exclusive, and thus limiting its potential as a creative tool.
Victoria, B.C. based artist Jackson 2Bears brings this same turntablist history to a more accessible version of the DVJ using a traditional turntable as an interface for a laptop where A/V tracks are manipulated as if they where vinyl. This approach will likely gain more and more momentum as the newest versions of the major laptop-based mixers (Serato, Traktor, Cue) will all handle encoded video files with the same ease that they handle encoded audio files. In many ways this could radically change the role of the VJ's relationship to the DJ. In the worst case scenario, we are out of a job. In the best case scenarios DJs will collaborate with a variety of graphic and media artists to create unique loops and tracks for their sets. We can only hope that the A/V track will take on the same characteristics of the contemporary electronic dance track: elements exchanged and reworked through a global network of artists and constantly presented and re-presented in a new way.
The Video Band
Despite the exciting potential for a new level of A/V remixing opened up by the expanded video capacity of DJ tools, this specific development has the potential to remove the VJ even further from the performance practice. It seems that if a VJ wants to enhance their performance presence they must take control of the audio themselves or work with sonic performers to create collaborative audio-visual art. Many of these collaborations manifest as uninspired visualizations of meandering noise-based practices. The performative connection can be quickly lost in a mire of over-abstraction. These collaborations can also bring us work from the likes of The Light Surgeons, whose layered and immersive performances, extending out from their place amongst the projection lights, give the impression that the work is truly an extension of themselves. However, despite their beautiful works, The Light Surgeons are still more firmly positioned in media art history, specifically expanded cinema, rather than in music or performance.
This collaborative approach to production and performance is driven by an increasing number of interdisciplinary collectives – audio, video and graphic artists working together toward the creation of a refined synaesthetic experience. However, another direction is possible, which engages all the elements of the creative process – the video band.2
Imagine, for instance, Thomas Ouellet Fredericks and Danny Perreault's Tvestroy with the performative element reinserted into the work.3 A screen towers above each individual artist, and as the coordinated expression of pure signal begins we are not only overwhelmed by the sound and video of the output, but also by the discernable collaboration between each of the performers. The live element of the work is now not only present in the artist's creative process, but is inextricable from the audience's experience of the performance.
The video band has all the potential to push the audio-visual performance to a new level. Each performer would control distinct sound and video elements and present their visual output on a distinct part of the screen. Adapting the history of the band to a new a-v age should be the next development in synaesthetic performances. It will connect the abstract electronic sound to distinct visual representations and enhance the sonic understanding of the audience. It will simultaneously define an artist's performance persona as the group is experienced not only as a collective output but also in relation to one another. Above all it will provide that distinct creative state achieved only in the performance environment.
This article has tried to explore why it is an exciting time to be a VJ and what are the challenges to individuals wishing to explore this as performance. Artists have long played with our sensations and the power of computer technology increasingly allows us to create aesthetic experiences that may replicate synesthesia. For VJs to take full advantage of this potential, and play an increasingly central role in audio-visual performances, requires the knowledge of the technology (how we install, how it works), an understanding of the content (how to create and assemble images) and an understanding of what it means to be a performer. Currently, VJs have an exceptional collective knowledge of technology and have developed a clear understanding of how to augment the sonic experience for the audience. What is struggling to be understood is our role within the performance and how we might become the performance itself. The discussion of the video band has hopefully encouraged those of us interested in this media practice to think about new creative directions, and more importantly about the evolving relationship we have with our audience.